Fame, but no grouses

THE GUN SELLER by Hugh Laurie Heinemann pounds 12.99

Nicholas Barber
Saturday 27 April 1996 23:02 BST

The story behind the story here is that Hugh Laurie sent his manuscript to the publishers under a pseudonym, and only after they had accepted it did he reveal himself to be everyone's favourite boggle-eyed comic actor. Too good to be true, probably, but not impossible. While his pal Stephen Fry's books contain the words myrmidon, glabrous and pithecanthrope, and his other pal Ben Elton plasters his books with dollops of stand-up comedy, The Gun Seller could have been written by anyone. Any very funny novelist with an affection for international spy capers, at least.

Not unlike its author, The Gun Seller's hero is a tall, loveably witty, motorbike-obsessed Englishman in his mid-thirties. Unlike the author, he is a mercenary and ex-officer called Thomas Lang. When he hears that a consortium of arms dealers is planning to engineer a terrorist act to boost sales of a new anti-terrorist helicopter, he's sceptical. Then the arms dealers recruit him to do the engineering. As he globetrots from London (the first and best part of the book) to Prague to Switzerland to Casablanca, he's never quite sure who's a goody and who's a baddy, himself included.

The plot provides plenty of ammunition to shoot at the Alan Clarks of this world, and Laurie fires it off with polite irony. Most of the jokes don't serve any particular satirical purpose, though: they just make you laugh out loud. Lang smokes his "too manyeth cigarette" of the day, and waters down his glass of Famous Grouse until it's only "I'm Sure I've Seen That Grouse Somewhere Before". He has some quality one-liners ("A gentleman has his limits, and so do I") and a murderous way with a metaphor: "The road ahead was long, rocky and had very few petrol stations." He trails an enemy agent, and, seeing his quarry jump into a taxi, catches another one himself. "Well, obviously it was another one. Even the amateur follower knows that you don't get into the same taxi as the person you're following." This trademark style makes you think that all those jokes on A Bit of Fry and Laurie which you'd always assumed were written by Fry might belong to Laurie after all. Inevitably, it also slows down the action, and doesn't help the construction of involving, three-dimensional characters.

Still, you wouldn't read the Alistair MacLean adventures which inspired Laurie for their depth of characterisation. The same goes for The Gun Seller. Instead, you'd read it because it's a light, accomplished, nicely paced, densely plotted debut novel which would be a pleasure whatever the author's name.

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